Previewing 2021 Programming on A&E, HISTORY and Lifetime

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This week A+E Networks will present what it is referring to as its "first ever" Content Showcase. It's a 30-minute event introducing a number of new and returning series and specials coming in 2021 to A&E, HISTORY and Lifetime. Don't confuse it with one of those elaborate sizzle reels so common at traditional Upfront events. "The Showcase is more of an intimate look under the hood," said A+E Networks President of Programming Rob Sharenow. "It's a little more casual. It has a bit of a different feel ... a little more like talking to a partner rather than a sell. There isn't as much pomp and circumstance in and around what we are showing."

At first glance it may seem that the Showcase was put together to compensate for the absence of the annual A+E Networks Upfront extravaganza last spring, when the early weeks of the pandemic brought an end to all traditional Upfront activity. But that isn't the case. "One of the reasons it came about is because we realized our teams have done such a good job prepping for the environment we're in that we had this plethora of content to show the ad community," Sharenow explained. "We had been extremely deliberate and thoughtful about how we planned our productions and mapped out our brands, so we have basically a full slate planned out for next year. With so much to show that we've already produced, it really felt like an opportunity for us to be loud and proud."

The Showcase, he continued, may remind industry viewers of the virtual Upfront A&E put together earlier this year, which Sharenow said worked out quite well. "I think we did a good job getting everything together last spring," he recalled. "We were very early in doing that. In fact, we got in front of more clients faster than we would have with a live event. Having a virtual event opens the gate wider. A lot of people responded positively to what we had, which is another reason why the Showcase is happening."

The video shown during the virtual Upfront was a "polished Upfront presentation that mirrored somewhat the experience of what you would expect to see at an Upfront event," Sharenow recalled. The Showcase, on the other hand, will be less formal. "This is me and my content teams showing what we've got." (Joining Sharenow in the presentation are Eli Leherer, executive vice president and general manager, HISTORY; Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive vice president of programming, A&E; Amy Winter, executive vice president of programming, Lifetime, and Peter Olsen, president, ad sales, A+E Networks.)

The Showcase is custom designed for the fall as a lead-in to the new year. "Clearly the seasonality of the Upfront was turned on its head," Sharenow said. "The Upfront went on … it's probably still going on … when the Upfront begins and ends got very blurry. But we've been very focused on keeping the content flow going as we would.

"We did make some adjustments when there was a lot of uncertainty with some of our big-ticket items, [but] in general we've really been able to honor our plans," he continued. "We have very robust quarters planned in 2021 for all the brands, particularly Lifetime during the holidays. HISTORY is beginning its big push into documentaries, which has been a slow drumbeat that is now going to be a full marching band of high-end documentary content coming in a steady flow."

The idea is to maintain year-round programming plans at all three networks. "We do 150 original movies on Lifetime a year," Sharenow noted. "That's a big number. We're leaning into how to program those most effectively and keep investing in that area. With HISTORY we're plotting out our documentary strategy [over] 52 weeks. It is not something that comes and goes. A&E is steady with non-scripted series. Some of its best assets are shows that are not seasonal."

Sharenow referred to the Content Showcase as "an example of how we operate. We try to innovate. We try to be very client-forward. We think this is a benefit for everybody. People want to know what's coming. Giving them an earlier glimpse and not keeping everything behind the curtain felt like it would benefit everyone. It's the philosophy of our company. We want to figure out ways to work with clients, our producing partners and our advertising partners. It's an example of us trying something new to be better partners."

The Showcase will call special attention to some of what Sharenow refers to as "premium content" coming to the networks next year and beyond. Consider the following projects on HISTORY alone: Great Escapes with Morgan Freeman, about extraordinary prison escapes; Assembly Required, a build competition series with [Home Improvement stars] Tim Allen and Richard Karn, and documentary projects from Leonardo DiCaprio and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Although it has complicated life for everybody, clearly the coronavirus pandemic did not egregiously hinder the production pipelines at A+E Networks, which is why they have put together their 2021 Content Showcase at this time. The credit in large part goes to executing long-term strategies.

"We are very deliberate and thoughtful in our long-range planning," Sharenow explained. "The Lifetime movie slate is not something that we cook up in three months. HISTORY's documentary slate is not something that we just dial up. We've made such a long-range commitment to those areas that we know what we're doing even in 2022. That comes from a focus and a commitment to super-serving the audiences of those brands."

As for producing during the pandemic, "we also did a really good job of navigating COVID as a company," he continued. "We are incredibly safe and tactical in attacking the issue of how we keep productions going. We did not turn the lights off on any of our brands. We didn't have to. We have been able to keep our slates going with premieres throughout the pandemic, and it continues now. In fact, we are having a really exciting fall with some of our launches and premieres, and we're about to kick into the holiday season for Lifetime.

"Being in the cable sector we are not as traditionally seasonal as the broadcast networks," he concluded. "From our perspective we have always launched when it was most opportune. We've always had a 52-week premiere cycle of content. So, for us it feels more natural that we are able to just keep on keeping on and keep looking for the opportunities."

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